Anthony “Spice” Adams has experienced things that are the stuff of dreams for many. For nine seasons, he terrorized offenses in the National Football League as a defensive tackle the San Francisco 49ers and the Chicago Bears. After announcing his retirement (in a self-effacing, humorous YouTube video that has been viewed well over a million times), he started a second career as a television host in Chicago, covering his former team. Recently, Adams showed of his acting skills as a part of the cast for the HBO series Ballers.
But for Adams, some of the most profound and lasting memories of his life go back to when he was a boy growing up in Detroit, and the trips he made to visit his father in prison.
Writing for the Players Tribune website, Adams remembers the first time he visited his father in prison when he was four years old. ” I’ll never forget the sights and sounds of the place,” he recalls, “the wailing cries of newborn babies, the way a light bulb would flicker right before it lost power, the pleas of inmates who wanted more time with their loved ones.
“But one sound in particular I’ll never be able to forget,” he says. “That buzz.”
The “buzz” was the sound made as the doors were opened, allowing prisoners into a room where they could talk with their loved ones through a thick pane of plexiglass.
“I took a moment to take in my surroundings,” says Adams. “That was my way of passing time and settling my nerves. … And when my dad would finally appear and sit down on the other side of the plexiglass, my focus shifted completely to him. I counted the number of times he blinked and listened to the sound he made by rhythmically tapping his his knuckles on the table.”
While the separation between Adams and his father was profound, it certainly didn’t make him unique among his friends. “In my neighborhood, most households were the same,” he says. “One mother, no father and a whole lot of kids.”
There was one exception to the rule, however. Adams’ friend Ron was the only person he knew whose household had two parents.
“Being at their house always made me feel loved,” Adams remembers. “Watching the way Mr. Crews held down his household was something you didn’t see too often in my neighborhood. Whether it was cooking, cleaning, or helping Ron learn his receiving routes for little league football, Mr. Crews did it all.”
“His family was everything I wished mine could have been,” he admits.
Adams continued to stay in contact and to visit his father, visiting him as often as possible, even as he was transferred to prisons across the region. (“All the guards at every prison knew my name,” he boasts.) Even as football began to occupy more and more of his time, he regularly corresponded with his father, who often offered his own football advice, despite actually never seeing his son play.
During his 25 years in prison, Adams’ father cultivated a unique artistic style, which he would use to produce paintings and sketches for his son. “First, he would close his eyes and visualize all the colors he was going to use: shades of blue, purple and yellow,” Adams describes. “Then he started with a small dot in the center of the sheet of paper. And everything flowed outward from that point.” The result was some truly amazing art, and an outlet where a father could express love to a son when words failed and distance separated.
Since his father’s release in 2010, Adams has worked to help his father adjust to life after 25 years of incarceration. “I felt that, after all those years, helping my dad to integrate back into society might be the best way to show my appreciation for how he had tried his best to keep up with my life,” he says.
Looking forward, Adams sees his relationship with his father developing just like the paintings he holds dear. “The first time I saw him behind bars was our point in the middle of a blank canvas,” he says. “With every visit, our relationship grew outwards, spiraling and blossoming into something beautiful. For us, everything came from that first connection.”
“I never had the, quote, unquote, ‘perfect family’ like Ron Crews did,” Adams concludes. “But, with the new relationship my father and I have developed, something beautiful is taking shape. I can’t wait to see what our picture will look like.”
While there are very few people who will ever realize the success that “Spice” Adams has known on the football field, or will know what it is like to act on a popular television series, there are many kids who share his experience of having a parent behind bars. There are 2.7 million kids in the United States who have one or both parents behind bars, and building and maintaining the parent-child relationships during incarceration is a vital part in helping both parties break the cycle of crime and imprisonment.
Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree program reaches out to families like the Adamses with the love of Christ. Every year at Christmas, Angel Tree provides children gifts on behalf of their incarcerated parents, while reminding both parent and child of the greatest gift of all given that first Christmas. In the process, relationships are restored, and blank canvases are transformed to works of art. To learn more about Angel Tree, and how you and your church or group can get involved, visit https://www.angeltree.org.